Catcher Brett Austin had a masterful season at the plate for N.C. State in 2014, batting .344 — the team leader by far — to go along with a .516 slugging percentage and 31 RBIs in 54 games.
It helped the Wolfpack to a 32-23 record (although that was its worst in five years) and earned Austin a selection by the Chicago White Sox in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft.
The Matthews native, now 23, hasn’t experienced nearly the same caliber of batting success since but has nonetheless remained in North Carolina for all three years to date in the minors. After spending most of two summers for Single-A Kannapolis, Austin is now winding down his first full season for Advanced-A Winston-Salem.
He’s batting .218 with 39 RBIs and eight home runs – all professional career highs – in 78 games for the Dash. On Thursday against the Mudcats, Austin went 1-for-2 in addition to drawing a walk. He hit a three-run homer against the Mudcats earlier this month.
Mudcats slide into last place
Meanwhile, the Mudcats’ pair of losses to Austin’s Dash in a Thursday doubleheader extended their losing streak to eight games at the time and dropped the team into last place in the Carolina League standings for the season’s second half.
As of Friday, Carolina is 15-32 in the second half — one game behind Wilmington, Del., for last place. Its 44-73 overall record remains a half-game above Wilmington.
With 23 games remaining in the 2016 season, the Mudcats streak of missing the playoffs will extend to eight consecutive years, dating back to their final seasons as a Double-A team.
Conger transitions back to Triple-A
After four straight seasons in the major leagues, catcher Hank Conger finds himself back in Triple-A.
The 28-year-old Washington native last played in the minors in 2012, when he hit .295 with 48 RBIs in 67 games for the Pacific Coast League’s Salt Lake Bees. That impressive campaign boosted him to the majors for good — first for the Los Angeles Angels, then the Houston Astros, and most recently the Tampa Bay Rays.
But Conger struggled with the Rays, batting just .194 with almost a strikeout-per-game average in 49 appearances and throwing out only four of 39 steal attempts. After a disastrous 3-22 stretch for the Rays, the Durham Bulls’ parent team sent Conger down in favor of the younger Luke Maile.
Conger’s stint in Durham began even worse than his time in Tampa Bay, as he failed to collect a single hit while striking out six times through his first 13 at-bats.
The former first-round pick’s fortunes have turned around recently, however, with hits in five of his last six games and home runs in back-to-back games as of Friday to boost his Triple-A batting average from .139 to .228.
Bulls averaging nearly 6,000 in non-STH sales
As the Bulls have struggled on the field in 2016, overall attendance is down slightly from 7,814 per game last year – an all-time high – to 7,390 this year. That’s about 1,800 fans per game shy of International League attendance-leader Charlotte.
The ways in which the Bulls are drawing their fans, however, makes general manager Mike Birling proud.
The Bulls have only about 1,500 season-ticket holders, compared to roughly 4,000 for some of the larger IL markets like Charlotte, Columbus and Indianapolis, Birling estimated. The rest of ticket sales – which can be as many 8,000 or 9,000 for sold-out games – are comprised of mini-plans, groups, corporate sales and walk-up sales at the box office.
“It’s pretty rare for a team to be in a stadium this long and setting attendance records. Most of the time you build a stadium, your attendance skyrockets and then, after three or four years, your attendance declines a little bit,” Birling said, attributing it to the team’s lack of reliance on season-ticket holders paying relatively large sums for the full-season plans.
“We’ve kind of developed a relationship with the business community that we’re kind of that inexpensive, turnkey option, so our group business is very big.”